How Obama could change the game on Iran

If the Iranian people can more clearly see the benefits offered by negotiations, Iran's leaders will be more likely to compromise to get talks going again.

Despite President Obama’s initial policy of engagement toward Iran, the outstretched US hand is now looking more like an index finger.

With the public announcement this weekend of US defensive missile deployment in the Middle East, the saber-rattling appears to have begun.

And as Iran thumbs its nose at the international community, another round of fruitless UN Security Council discussions appear to be in the offing.

We’ve been here before, and we don’t need to carry on like this.

Over the past year, US policy toward Iran has involved conciliatory messages from the president, tepid condemnations of human rights abuses, and participation in six-party talks addressing Iran’s nuclear program.

The elephant in the room is the continued hostility between Iran and the United States that dates back 30 years.

Some of Mr. Obama’s actions on Iran, such as sending a letter to Iran’s supreme leader and delivering a recorded message for the Iranian New Year, may be unprecedented, but they are not groundbreaking. The door to negotiation is said to be open, but it is not open wide enough. In fact, with the focus now solely on punishments resulting from Iran’s intransigence, Obama has yet to make clear to the Iranians what benefits compromise will bring.

Without a game-changing event, it is unlikely that the resumption of six-party talks or current tactics will prevent the acceleration of Iran’s nuclear program. The only option envisaged by the US seems to be to impose further sanctions on Iran.

Sanctions – if indeed enacted – would have a limited effect and do not represent a high benchmark for success. They have backfired in the past, inflating hostility and causing Iranians to dig in – and they may do so again. In addition, China, Russia, and others with whom Iran does have regular dialogue have already signaled they are unlikely to sacrifice their economic trade and other interests to pursue strong sanctions.

So if Obama wants to give diplomacy a chance, he must up the ante with a realistic package of incentives for Iran.

A grand bargain

The president could introduce a genuine game changer by offering a concrete proposal to engage in “grand bargain” talks focused on a broad range of issues (regional security, trade and investment, legal claims, cultural exchange, and so forth).

Engaging adversaries in diplomatic negotiations has worked in the past.

Talks with Libya in 2003 resulted in Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s abandonment of his “weapons of mass destruction” program, a renunciation of terrorism, and resumption of diplomatic and economic relations. President Nixon’s dialogue with China in 1972 led to a normalization of relations in 1979 and ongoing economic, cultural, and educational contacts. Deflating hostility and dealing successfully with recalcitrant nations can be done without resorting to regime change.

Opportunity for compromise

Exclusive focus on the nuclear issue has caused a strategic myopia in Washington that prevents the development of a viable long-term strategy for Iran and misses broader opportunities to induce Iranian cooperation.

Pressure tactics may score political points, but have little chance on their own to facilitate a rapprochement between Iran and the world. Nor are outside actors likely to bring major political change to Iran.

Changes to the Iranian regime will only come on the basis of its domestic politics and will more likely involve new officeholders rather than a new system of government. An offer to engage Iran more deeply, on the other hand, may be fashioned to the entire Iranian nation and should apply no matter the flaws of its current leaders.

There’s a way to break Iran’s “blame the Great Satan” reflexes and tap into its deep-seated desire for respect from the international community. Obama should challenge Iran to open up a bilateral channel of communication as a means to address the issues that have plagued relations between the two countries.

Full integration of Iran into the international community, including resumption of diplomatic relations with the US, would be a powerful incentive if properly packaged. If the Iranian people can more clearly see the benefits offered by negotiations, Iran's leaders will be more likely to compromise to get talks going again.

A package of incentives might include technology sharing on peaceful nuclear fuel development, the lifting of the US trade embargo, developing Iran’s refining capacity, targeted economic assistance, and expedited settlement of Iran’s legal claims.

As it did with North Korea, the US could introduce a major deal sweetener by offering assurances that it will not take military action or seek a regime change in Iran. Talks might also address regional security matters.

A host of benefits

Normalizing diplomatic relations with Iran could bring a host of benefits. It would encourage Iran’s integration into regional security arrangements and reduce the need for grandstanding.

Increased trade with the US would benefit American industries and counterbalance Russian and Chinese patronage in the region. Genuine dialogue may also enhance cultural contacts and prompt a relaxation of Iran’s conflict-driven politics.

Broad-based engagement with Iran need not be without preconditions, nor does it require abandoning the six-party talks or remaining silent on censorship and human rights abuses.

To be sure, negotiations would be messy and protracted. They would require long hours, authoritative communication channels, and perhaps a jointly staffed negotiating facility in a neutral country.

But a bold diplomatic stroke would have a positive effect. A public and concrete proposal from the US to engage in direct and wide-ranging talks raises the diplomatic stakes in a way that benefits both parties.

Given hard-line stigma and political instability, Iranians are not in a position to break the impasse. They might, however, be in a better position to respond to a clear-cut initiative showing a visible US interest in diplomacy. The will for détente clearly exists in Washington, but a successful outcome will require greater initiative.

Let’s end the Kabuki dance. Send out the calling card, put everything on the table, and see if they show up. Otherwise, the US and the rest of the world should be prepared for more of the same.

Cristian DeFrancia is a legal adviser at the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal in The Hague.


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